Simon Carr: We must be gullible to keep listening to these scares

We do provide a receptive climate for the bacillus of looming disaster
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The Independent Online

Five years ago, I was wondering how our Indian summer of prosperity would end.

We had been basking in the long Edwardian glow of low prices, cheap labour, domestic servants, prosperity and growth. It didn't actually occur to any of us at the time that a credit crunch would do the trick; a collapse of confidence in our debt-repaying abilities. That was beyond imagining. No, it was going to be something more obvious.

War was the most likely, if you listened to those who relied on historical cycles. In 1714 the western world had fought itself to a standstill. Add in 1814 and 1914, and there were the grounds for a Nostradamus-style paranoia. What would be our equivalent of World War One?

Or maybe climate change would have caught up with us, to sweep us away in millennial winds (and maybe it yet will). Or again, maybe disease. The bugs would exert themselves and mutate into something we couldn't catch up with.

War, disease, the wrath of Gaia. "For we've lived so well, so long," as the singer sang it. We'd had a fabulous 50 years, and now we'd have to pay.

Now, here we are again. Eighty people have got a nasty flu and died in Mexico. May they rest in peace. But 200,000 of us die every day in the world, so the Mexican victims aren't exactly objects of rational fear. But the sentence that has been picked up and spun round the world says: "The World Health Organisation has warned that the [swine flu] virus has the potential to become a pandemic".

It sounds to us in the laity a bit like the Terror Level rating the Government puts out so that it can say, "We did warn you," if perchance a bombing takes place.

But it has made front pages all round the world. It is a pandemic of headlines. And the director of the World Influenza Centre has helped by saying of the outbreak and its future: "It's difficult to look on the bright side."

Actually, it is not at all difficult, with a little insensitivity. The bright side is that almost no one has been affected, there have been almost no deaths, we haven't had a major outbreak of flu for 40 years, there has been no swine flu in the UK for a decade, and also no one in Britain died of bird flu.

It may well be true that, virally speaking, H1 swine flu is "already worse than H5". But that H5N1 bird flu was hardly worth worrying us with at all. According to the World Health Organisation, 257 people have died of it in the last seven years, while the best part of a billion others have died of non-bird flu related causes.

Nonetheless, we were worried enough at the time. Avian flu was subjected to "detailed modelling" by the Department of Health.

It revealed "mortality estimates of between 50,000 and 750,000 additional deaths, depending on both the attack rate and case fatality rate". That is, in English, maybe 50,000 people would die or 750,000 people would die, depending on how many people died. In the event, nobody in Britain died.

Why we want to believe that 750,000 Britons are under threat of dying a miserable death through failure of the respiratory system isn't clear, but we do want to play with the idea. We do provide a receptive environment for the bacillus of looming disaster.

When Aids first came to prominence in the 1980s, it was widely accepted that most people would be infected over the next generation. The creation of misleading graphs, tortured tables and spurious argumentation was incredible. In the end, no one believed it. But we had to go through 15 years without Aids infecting most of us before we could accept it.

The Millennium Bug grew in a similar culture. The BBC estimated that $300m had been spent on preventing a global computer crash that would destroy the world's processing power. After nothing happened, the organisers of the prevention drive declared it a great success. But companies – and indeed countries – that did nothing performed as well as those who had spent the $300m.

Maybe these fears are what we have in a secular society instead of the Apocalypse. But there is one practical point we should take on board. If they – whoever "they" are – do get a good scare going, one prediction can make you rich.

Shares in Gilead Sciences (which holds the patent on the antiviral drug marketed as government-recommended Tamiflu) will bounce, along with shares in Roche, which has the marketing rights.

GlaxoSmithKline may also work (they produce Relenza).

Both drugs have apparently worked, in laboratory conditions, against the swine flu virus. Expect that the UK alone will be commissioning 30 million doses, paying emergency rates. The profits, at least, will be apocalyptic.